The Far Right Does Not Challenge the Status Quo

The antiestablishment posturing and “pro-worker” claims of the far-right UK Reform party’s agenda make for good PR. They are also blatant lies.

Reform UK chairman Richard Tice (L) and party leader Nigel Farage on June 17, 2024. (Ben Birchall / PA Images via Getty Images)

At the core of the ongoing rise of far-right populists sits their claim to be on the side of the people and against the corrupt elites. That’s how they’ve managed to exploit the popular anger against mainstream parties across Europe — particularly in countries where the Left has failed to present itself as a credible alternative to the status quo. And they’re not only winning elections but also influencing the political mainstream along the way. But these far-right populists are by and for the ruling class just as much as the mainstream parties — only a different faction than the one currently in charge.

Mainstream commentators and academics are keen to emphasize these parties’ “illiberal” discourse and policies. We know much less, however, about the class forces and interests they represent. Sure, it’s self-obvious that businessmen like Donald Trump or Richard Tice are nothing but elite. But right-wing populism is not merely about a bunch of rich mavericks with hyperinflated egos. Understanding their political movements means moving beyond the moralistic, personalized caricatures presented by the liberal commentariat.

Generally, political parties are vehicles for certain class forces to promote their specific interests. To establish which class forces and interests are behind the populist far right, we need to delve into the social background of the wider party elites (not just their “charismatic leaders”), who their donors and mainstream media backers are, and, most importantly, what their economic agenda actually looks like.

We have a good starting point in that respect: the right-wing populist governments in countries like Hungary or (formerly) Poland. They have tended to be vehicles for the interests of domestic capitalists squeezed by the domination of foreign capital following these countries’ accession to the European Union. Albeit in a different context, this has also been the class character of the previous (and potentially future) Trump administration in the United States or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rule in Turkey.

Despite the “antiestablishment” and “men of the people” image they project, their economic policies have overwhelmingly served rich elites — just like the mainstream parties they claim to be an alternative to. The difference is which rich elites they represent: those sections of the national capitalist class that feel disadvantaged by neoliberal globalization and want the state to give them a hand.

Likely to be the next far-right populist party in government, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) makes no exception to this pattern: its MPs have consistently voted in the interests of businesses, landlords, and wealthy families. Lately, the party’s leadership has been intensely courting corporate elites, promising them that an RN government would respect deficit targets. Crucially, they have pledged to give French companies preference in procurement. Neighboring Italy has already shown the path, with Giorgia Meloni’s far-right government having cut welfare benefits last year while attempting to contain the power of foreign corporations.

In other words, it’s business as usual in relation to the popular classes: austerity, precarity, and race to the bottom. It’s only the type of businesses benefiting that are different — national rather than transnational. The symbiosis between far-right populists and domestic capitalists is so strong that sometimes they are one and the same. When the Swiss People’s Party, for example, won the federal election in 2015, more than half of its MPs were entrepreneurs and virtually none were working class. In Italy, Meloni’s minister of defense, Guido Crosetto, used to be the chief lobbyist for the domestic arms industry. The only working-class thing about these parties is the profile of some of their voters (which itself is often greatly exaggerated).

The Anti-Elite Elite

What about UK Reform, then? It’s common knowledge that Nigel Farage is a privately educated former City banker with a net worth of over £3 million. The other figurehead, Tice, who claims “we’re the party of the workers,” is a multimillionaire from a dynasty of property developers. Even some of their lesser-known candidates in these elections come from the high echelons of finance capital, like Ian Gribbin, former director at Credit Suisse and Merrill Lynch, who claimed that Britain should have accepted Adolf Hitler’s offer of neutrality in World War II.

We also know who their donors are: few but wealthy, from aristocrats like Robin Birley, who owns a private club in Mayfair, to financiers like David Lilley, who runs the investment fund Drakewood Capital. The party’s biggest backer in the mainstream media, GB News, is owned by billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Marshall. In fact, Reform UK is registered as a private company rather than a not-for-profit charity, as all other political parties are.

All the more revealing, though, is their economic vision. Farage and Tice have downplayed it during this campaign, throwing all their eggs on immigration. But their manifesto launch the other week provided a useful glimpse into the class interests they serve. It’s a manifesto ridden with pro-business neoliberal policies: reduction of corporate tax from 25 percent to 15 percent within three years; further deregulation of business; tax cuts for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs); virtual abolition of inheritance tax; acceleration of National Health Service (NHS) privatization; tax breaks for landlords; tax cuts for private schools; withdrawal of unemployment benefits after four months or two job offers; and fast-tracking licenses of North Sea gas and oil. The few policies that are supposed to raise the living standards of ordinary people amount to more unfunded tax cuts. Nothing from this “party of the workers” on building more council homes, raising the minimum wage, or restoring workers’ rights.

Thus, from the social backgrounds of the party elites and donors to their actually policy proposals, all signs indicate that Reform UK represents a wide range of business interests. Farage’s direct digs at big business, multinationals, and the renewable energy industry suggest that this party is the political vehicle of a coalition of SMEs, domestic capital, and the fossil fuel industry.

That is more or less in line with far-right populists elsewhere. What seems distinctive about far-right populism in the UK is its linkage to “alt-finance”— hedge funds and private equity funds that specialize in over-the-counter transactions, draw most of their profits from speculation and therefore seek further deregulation of their sector. They funded the Brexit campaign and now some of them are funding Reform UK.

Capitalists are, of course, united when they need to defend their interests against the working class. But they still compete against each other over market shares, access to natural resources, or preferential state policies. This internal class conflict is played out among distinct factions with often incompatible priorities: national vs. transnational capital; SMEs vs. big business; finance vs. manufacture; large banks vs. hedge funds. Some of these factions feel they are not (anymore) represented by centrist parties, so they use far-right populist parties as vehicles for their own interests, exploiting popular disillusionment with mainstream politicians. They are neither by nor for the people — but an anti-elite elite challenging for hegemony. This is a fight between the rich over who gets to control the state.